REVIEW: Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux, trans. Darren Jackson
by Jerome Keeler
The writings of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) won the admiration of such figures as John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. It was no small admiration: Michaux’s contemporaries understood him to be a genius. Yet Michaux’s major works, despite the fact that they have been available in authoritative French editions for decades, have for the most part not been translated into English.
Darren Jackson’s translation of Life in the Folds, originally published as La vie dans les plis (Éditions Gallimard, 1949) marks a small step toward rectifying this situation. Indeed, it is fair to call it something of an event. Quite apart from the quality of the translations, which are in large measure more lively than earlier efforts, Mr. Jackson has simply made a wise choice in translating a work in its entirety, rather than offering another volume of the selected-and-edited options already available. And he has chosen a particular type of Michaux work that, rather incredibly, has never been translated into English. One can easily find volumes describing Michaux’s mescaline experiments, or either of his travel journals, or works combining non-fiction, drawings, and verse, but until now there has been no way to access his more strictly poetic books except in selected form. This is a significant absence, for it is in such writings that Michaux’s artistry is on its fullest display.
Michaux is certainly not alone in such a fate—it is shared by any number of major twentieth-century poets who did not write in English. If we cannot really complain of this, then, we can at least note the results. These consist, I think, principally in an overselling of a certain side of Michaux: his quirkiness. If you’ve encountered any previous translations from Life in the Folds, such as those available in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984 (University of California Press, 1994) or Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), you might imagine Michaux to be some sort of comedian. In fact, throughout much of his work, and particularly in Life in the Folds, Michaux is primarily occupied with suffering.
The collection opens with a section titled “Freedom of Action.” Most of the selections from Life in the Folds that have previously been translated elsewhere are drawn from this section, and it is not hard to see why. The most memorable piece is certainly the first, “The Sack Session,” which begins with the sort of setup characteristic of Michaux:
It began when I was a child. There was a big cumbersome adult.
How to get revenge on him? I put him in the sack. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out but I didn’t listen. He wasn’t interesting.
I sensibly kept this childhood habit. I don’t trust the possibilities for intervention one learns as an adult, and besides, they don’t work very well.
You don’t offer a chair to someone in bed.
“Freedom of Action” continues to explore such imaginative acts of violence. In “The Sausage Cellar,” the speaker swipes an enemy marshal and other personages from the streets and grinds them into sausages. Elsewhere, to deal with the family, he makes a rapid-fire “slapping gun” out of his hand. Such scenarios display the primary mechanism of Michaux’s art: the displacement of concepts, or psychological states, to literal situations. The immediate reaction of a new reader to this gesture, I believe, is likely to be, and perhaps should be, a smile, or a chuckle. But it is the smile one smiles when reading Beckett, or Kafka, for instance—an uneasy one. As the title “Freedom of Action” suggests, Michaux knows what we are really in for: freedom amounts to no more than the possibility of imagining such a notion. It is reassuring, perhaps, to use the imagination to achieve revenge, but in reality it is oneself who will become the sausage, the marshal who will do the grinding. It is encouraging, then, in a perverse way, to see that there is a lot less to laugh about as Life in the Folds progresses.
Michaux witnessed, among other horrors, the occupations of Belgium and France, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of the great centers of European culture. And he perceived, as intensely as any modernist master, the effects of these events on the individual historical subject. The extent to which the camps in particular are central to his work becomes clear in Life in the Folds in a manner never approached by previous selections. His particular insights are most evident in the tensions between the pieces in “Freedom of Action” and those in the book’s second section, “Apparitions.” Here, the weaponry is no longer in the subject’s hands. It remains largely in the imagination but as a threat rather than a means of revenge. Michaux explores this in chilling ways. “The Danger in The Associations of Thoughts” begins with the cool observation that beauty can be appreciated whether the subject of contemplation is a pair of human lungs or the violent cutting action of a saw. Then the fireworks begin.
But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? And in a time of blood such as ours, how could it not cling to it? And there it is, entering as if it were at home, sinking in thanks to its magnificent teeth, calmly cutting its furrow into the lungs that will be of use to no one, no one, isn’t that obvious?
For the imagination, the only element of the spirit that survives a near extermination, suffering is the only thing left to imagine. There is certainly nothing to smile about in this section, which occupies almost half of the volume. A catalogue of tortures is presented. Speakers envision being thermocautered, disembowled, trepanned, and assaulted with a sword so long that at the point of entry into the flesh it has tapered to the point of invisibility. To make matters worse, one simply gets used to it all: “A war comes. A war passes. Before passing it consumes a lot. It consumes enormously. So it’s natural that it crushes some skulls here or there.”
If Life in the Folds contained nothing but these sections, it would be a remarkable achievement. But Michaux has something more up his sleeve: “Portrait of the Meidosems,” a 28-page account of the aspirations and sufferings of an imaginary race of creatures who find themselves embodied fleetingly in a variety of forms. It is a dazzling, dizzying account, every bit as primitivistic and initially mystifying in French as in English (certain sections might give the impression that this is a clumsy translation, when in fact Jackson has simply chosen not to interfere with the effect of the original). When people describe Michaux as unclassifiable, “Portrait” is the kind of thing they have in mind:
The herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How could they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them. And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.
A body of insightful French criticism exists on this poem, but much commentary in English seems to focus on the notion that the suffering of the Meidosems holds a mirror up to our own. But within the context of Life in the Folds, it seems more accurate to understand the Meidosems as unlike ourselves. If “Freedom of Action” and “Apparitions” are concerned with the sufferings of beings in the flesh, “Portrait” imagines the destiny of creatures who are, in terms of corporeality, neither here nor there. Shuttling between “the cold of Nothingness” and a variety of awkward bodies they cannot choose or control (knots, spears, bloated sponges, waterfalls, condensation on a mirror), the Meidosems pass their existence always on edge. They wouldn’t mind something a bit more permanent. Yet perhaps their fate is not so awful. For the embodied, as the speaker at one point breaks in to observe, there’s nowhere to go but down: “Scattered organs, broken races, intentions trapped in stone. The solid has you. In shards of yourself. The solid you so desired has you at last.”
Wakefield Press (2016): $14.95
First published as La vie dans les plis. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1949.
Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.